Who should you BANK on? Analysts reveal top picks

How to invest in Asia's banking sector

Stock markets appear to be in the throes of a secular bull run, albeit selectively, and currently in pause mode after last year's spectacular gains.

Ironically it's the countries that have central banks engaging in an unprecedented global monetary expansion to boost growth, although anemic at best, which are the big winners.

And in the path for asset-market reflation-based policies, banks in particular stand out as clear sector beneficiaries of economic engineering. Why? Because banks are the backbone of all economies, so when asset prices rise, and economic activity picks up, lending and borrowing follow suit.

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That may appear too easy to apply as a fool-proof investment thesis for investors, but overall analysts in a CNBC banking poll say the sector should perform if the overall economy does too.

So after stellar equity market gains in 2013, how do banks stack up for 2014? In the context of Asian markets, the region is a melting pot of many different markets with different classifications ranging from frontier markets to developed markets.

In identifying which banks would be analysts' top choices for 2014, I broke up the CNBC poll surveys based on themes that are currently being explored by various analysts. The three regions are North Asia, Greater China and Southeast Asia. The methodology for each is quite different, as are the circumstances.


We start with Japan, because that's exactly where the worlds' most expansive monetary easing policy is taking place. If 'Abenomics' is to work by successfully lifting Japan out of a prolonged and agonizing deflationary run, banks should be the main beneficiaries.

Read MoreJapan business sentiment improves a touch: Tankan

Citi is bullish on Japan banks based on the following principles: a) perfectly recovered loan growth, b) potential steepening of yield thanks to reflation and U.S. tapering, c) overseas expansion (for mega banks) and d) valuation re-rating after the markets fully discount the core profitability outlook. Overall, the top picks from the pool of analysts polled, SMFG and MUFG were the preferred ones.


From the 'asset reflation theme' underway in Japan, we moved to the opposite spectrum in China, where it's an 'asset discount theme' mixed with a 'slowing, but still growing market theme.'

In China's case, the opportunities that exist are that banks are trading at substantially low price-to-book ratios, but yet profits are still growing, albeit at a slower pace.

Read MoreBad loan writedowns soar at China banks

Most analysts attribute that to the dark clouds of uncertainty that hang over the looming unwinding consequences of the credit binge and tighter monetary policy. In the absence of any clarity and certainty on the degree of the problem, investors appear to have slapped a big discount on Chinese banks, which could also be an opportunity to get in at cheaper levels.

Southeast Asia

The final theme that appeals to some is the basic 'growth theme' – put simply, banks that operate in growing emerging markets.

Yes, not exactly a favorite for last year, as investors yanked capital out of any country under this market classification, particularly in countries with particularly fragile economic fundamentals and reliant on foreign capital to fund current account deficits.

Read MoreEmerging market turbulence to be short-lived: DBS CEO

In Southeast Asia, the four biggest markets include Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore.

Although Singapore doesn't quite qualify as an emerging market, its banks operate across emerging markets and continue to pursue them as growth initiatives.

But analysts point out that investors shouldn't look at growth alone.

Ismael Pili of Macquarie Securities says "my stock and country preference reflects a greater sense of defensiveness, which for the banking sector tends to revolve around capital, asset quality, and liquidity. Thus, my current preference is for the Philippines, Singapore, and to some extent, Indonesia."

Read MoreIs Singapore set for an Icelandic-style crash?

The top analyst pick was DBS. In the words of Sharnie Wong from Barclays: "DBS is most positively geared to a rise in benchmark interest rates in the medium term among the Singapore banks given its large deposit base and greater proportion of SG$/US$/HK$ interest-earning assets."

In essence, the CNBC Banking Poll reveals that if anything there isn't a 'one size fits all approach', but rather something for everybody, depending on your investment parameters.